Running extra: Is it time for a new tankcar design?

Is it time for a new tankcar design?

Railroads have been in existence now for more than 225 years. In the United States, the iron highway (as the railroad is alternatively known) has, in one form or another, been around for almost as long – some 195 years in all. In fact, where automation on an industrial scale has come into play, there is not one other mode operating on land that’s older.

Railroads have a long history. And, in that history there is a long learning curve. Even so, and as is the case with virtually every automated transportation mode, things can – and sometimes do – go wrong. When that happens the outcomes are almost never predictable as far as what, exactly, will transpire.

Like in the recent derailment of a Norfolk Southern Corporation freight train in the community of East Palestine, Ohio, which resulted in a hazardous materials release (or hazmat releases), the contents of some railcars affected, spilling, catching fire and, no doubt, on account of this mandatory evacuation orders (of residents located within a certain radius of the accident site) were issued.

This article is not about placing blame on whom or what caused the crash, or in how emergency response and cleanup procedures were conducted. Instead, this post is a brief examination delving into how railroads can be made safer so that when these types of events do occur, their severity can be reduced with less danger being posed to air, water, soil and life in the aftermath of such. That’s what this is about.

Operating integrity is, of course, connected to operating dynamics – the conditions present in the environment under which the train is operating like with speed, train makeup (how the railcars are positioned in the train consist), lateral (dynamic) forces applied to or exerted on, for example, the rolling stock, and things like that.

Traincar structural integrity, meanwhile, is based upon conveyance design and design features, assembly parameters, construction materials used as well as in regard to what safety provisions are built in. Today in the U.S., before any piece of railroad rolling stock is allowed to roll off a single revenue mile, it must go through a battery of rigorous tests, upon which, when passed, is then declared certified ready. Vibration, stress, braking and actual field testing where the representative railcar chosen for evaluation purposes logs mile after mile after mile on a track that serves no other purpose than that of a so-called “test track,” can be just some of what’s involved during said evaluation trials.

Which brings this part of the conversation to tankcar design.

Make no mistake. Over the years, many changes and improvements in construction engineering and design have been made. Improvements such as alterations in coupler design, changes in wheel and axle and suspension and even tankcar body-shell as well as content inlet and outlet lid (door) lock/release hardware design. They’ve all been improved. That, plus their being the focus of periodic upgrades made, having to do with features like inner tanks (tanks within tanks – those built and strategically positioned inside outer protective tank shells) as a means to try to achieve an extra margin of safety. This all done with the singular purpose in mind of making the body-shells more resistant to puncture damage. That said, there are still more steps or measures that could be taken to further improve tankcar integrity, apparently.

One thing that I’ve noticed in a number of derailments is how the strewn-about freight and passenger cars (depending), after derailing, come to rest. In many an instance, what winds up happening is the rail conveyances come to rest perpendicular to the track itself – what I believe is called the “accordion” effect.

Perhaps a different type of coupler arrangement could be employed that minimizes the chances of this type of result from occurring. Or, maybe the size of the tank could be shrunk relative to the length of the wheeled support structure that the tank sits on. Or even something as seemingly elementary as placing specially designed, so-called buffer cars between those tankcars carrying hazardous materials, so that they are not all strung together and positioned next to each other. All might be feasible approaches at addressing this issue.

There is no doubt work at improving rolling stock and gaining a better understanding of the dynamics involved in trains moving on train tracks still to be done, that which could involve examining deeper and perhaps more thoroughly the track itself, track conditions and track dynamics. Who knows?! There could even be monitoring equipment (cameras, audio recorders, sensors) placed on the rolling stock itself that checks for anomalies on any and all railcars in question, data taken at regular intervals that could then be wirelessly fed to computers located in the locomotive or control cab and/or at some remote location, such data used to help make the railroad operating environment safer.

Now, with the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), there just seems no end to what is possible.


An earlier version of this article misidentified the Ohio town in question as Palestine. The appropriate change has been made and the information is now correct.

Last updated on Feb. 18, 2023 at 8:44 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.

⁃ Alan Kandel

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